I had a disconcerting conversation recently with a former therapy client who was trying to decide whether or not to marry the woman he had been living with for some time. The woman in question possessed all the qualities he had already decided were essential in a life partner—except that she was not as pretty as some women he had dated. His dilemma was whether or not to continue “shopping around” for what he called a “complete package.” He said he was a little afraid to do that, though, because, as he assured me, in most ways she was a real “find.”
Only a few weeks after my conversation with this man, I had an equally disturbing talk with an elderly woman seated beside me on a long plane trip. When she asked what I do for a living and I responded that I am a psychologist, she immediately began to speak negatively about herself. She told me how much more “valuable” I am in society than she; all she had done with her life was get married, take care of a house and raise five children. When I suggested that parenting five children seemed like a very important and difficult task to me and certainly one to be proud of, she insisted that she really wasn’t “worth” much because she never even worked outside the home. “I never earned a cent of money my whole life,” she said. “It’s no wonder that my husband used to say that it ‘cost’ him a lot to keep me and the children. I know he sometimes questioned if we were worth the ‘price.’” My reassurance did nothing to change this woman’s mind about her “value” as a wife and mother, much less as a human being.
Reflecting on my former client’s words and those of the woman on the plane has made me wonder how much our attitude about ourselves and others is affected by the consumer mentality that permeates our culture. Comments I have heard from a number of other people convince me that this is definitely so. I remember a friend of one of my sisters who was surprised that he had to work on his marriage, having assumed that they had completed the “deal” on their wedding day. He had not expected that he would have to “pay” more for his relationship by going to marriage counseling. (I once saw a battered woman for therapy who said she had married her husband because she had gotten no better “offers” and didn’t see herself as much of a “bargain” anyway.)
Perhaps the most disheartening remark came from the man who told me he was looking for a “luxury item” in a wife, since he needed someone to make him look good with his colleagues. “She has to look like a million bucks,” he said calmly, with no hint of embarrassment.
Surely our speech betrays us. We tend, unwittingly or not, often to evaluate ourselves and other people much as we assess an object we are considering for purchase. And the advertising industry seems intent on encouraging us to do just that—to make our goal in life the attainment of the best, the latest, the bargain, the most. What is even more distressing is the implication that people can be acquired in the same way: if one buys the automobile shown on the TV screen, he also gets the woman draped across it; if one smokes a certain cigarette, she will soon be coupled with the handsome male puffing it on the overhead billboard.
If we treat people like possessions that we can judge and procure, it is not surprising that we can, with equal ease, discard them when they no longer suit us. The number of broken relationships around us attests to the facility with which we throw away what is not working, what does not fit, what is past its prime. Any similarity between viewing people in this manner and “love” seems coincidental.
But perhaps love, the kind Jesus encouraged, is the only force strong enough to reverse our consumer approach to others. Defining that kind of love would be no small task, but we can be certain at least that it must be more than a transitory feeling that changes when the “price” is too high. Love must be a decision, an act of the will.
It must be more than a feeling if it is to endure, since feelings are not lasting. They come and go, wax and wane. Feelings are, after all, not facts. They are, rather, like visitors who arrive and leave when they please. Feelings cannot be counted on for predictability or permanence any more than visitors stay or go when we might wish.
But love is not transitory or unpredictable; love is a choice to be faithful, to endure, without counting the “cost.” It is a decision that remains constant underneath the myriad feelings one has at different times toward those one loves.
I have seen many people who epitomize that kind of loving: the couple determined to grow closer despite the deaths of two of their children, and did; a woman who left her alcoholic husband until he agreed to get help; a sister who spends her days praying with cancer patients and their loved ones; a friend who answered my question about why, being no animal lover, she had just purchased a dog for her daughter by saying, “I love Kate; Kate loves the dog.” None of these people talk about the “cost” of their relationships, the “price” they have to pay for being connected with the people in their lives or the better “bargain” they might have found elsewhere.
As we struggle to deafen our ears to the voices in our consumer culture that urge us to look for the best buy, purchase the latest model and discard what does not satisfy our most recent whim, we can take hope from those around us who have already learned what Jesus came to teach us—namely, that every person is “priceless,” every loving relationship a “bargain.”